There are numerous bills passed by the legislature that have yet to receive funding that advocates say would shore up the state’s mental health system. (Getty Images)
That’s what providers, advocates and lawmakers pushing for change say. And although progress has been made during the Mills administration to begin rectifying these issues, they say much more is needed to stabilize the system.
“Our system is broken, and that’s not any different than I’ve been saying the entire time I’ve been in the legislature,” said state Rep. Colleen Madigan, a fourth-term Democrat from Waterville who has worked in the behavioral health field for over 25 years.
With a short session of the legislature set to begin later this year, advocates say there are potential solutions that could start to address these problems, including a series of bills that lawmakers have already passed but that haven’t been funded by the budget committee.
And indeed there may be renewed political momentum to take action on the issue of behavioral health, as well as gun safety, following a deadly mass shooting in Lewiston last month in which the shooter had easy access to weapons and a history of mental health problems. While advocates emphasize that those with mental health disorders are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the purveyors of it, they said they welcome a conversation about how to strengthen the behavioral health care system in the wake of the tragedy.
“We need a system of care that’s providing the supports people need,” said Malory Shaughnessy, executive director of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services of Maine.
What are the issues?
The problems with Maine’s mental health care system are multifaceted but interconnected. Ultimately, though, they boil down to a lack of access to services — an issue caused by persistent underfunding and a shortage of workers.
Waitlists for mental health services are common across the state. Joe Everett, president and CEO of the Opportunity Alliance, which provides behavioral health care in southern Maine, said the organization has waitlists for every single one of its programs. And state Rep. Lydia Crafts, a Democrat from Newcastle and a social worker, said she has heard local mental health providers across the state talk about waitlists in the thousands and has found a similar situation in her job.
“Just generally, there are not enough providers,” Crafts said. “It’s hard to find people.”
Crafts said one of the culprits is low reimbursement rates from MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program. Because of this, some providers may not accept patients covered by Medicaid, which primarily serves those with low-incomes, because it’s not economically viable.
“That puts poor folks on the losing end of accessing mental health,” Crafts said.
The state has provided some funding to increase reimbursement rates, but lawmakers and providers say the issue is still a significant hurdle.
Private insurance can also be part of the problem, Everett said. While many plans cover some mental health treatment, insurance providers often put limits on the number of times someone can see a therapist or get help from a social worker.
“It’s hard if you have a persistent mental illness and you only get 20 sessions a year,” Everett said.
Another huge drag on the mental health care system: a workforce shortage.
Everett said the Opportunity Alliance has around 500 total employees but about 50 vacancies. And statewide, he said there are only around 290 licensed psychiatrists, a severe shortfall when considering Maine has a total population of around 1.3 million people.
Low pay for behavioral health practitioners is one reason behind the worker shortage, Everett said. Others include the increased cost of living in Maine amid an affordable housing crisis and the price of higher education, which saddles far too many prospective behavioral health workers with large amounts of debt.
Everett added that with reimbursement rates still not keeping up with costs, it’s difficult for agencies to raise salaries because they too are only just scraping by.